January 20, 2008

Setting the house in order

Pakistan's ever-malleable domestic structure has for long suffered from apathy and polarised opinion among the country's cricket insiders. Now yet another series of changes may be in the offing

The public stays away in droves for the 2008 Quaid-e-Azam final © Faras Ghani

The final of Pakistan's premier first-class tournament concluded recently, surrounded by empty stands - as it has for many years - and without television coverage (it was due to be broadcast but the channel is currently off-air). Match reports appeared in the sports pages but were glossed over. Even cricket nuts, the kind who set 3.30am alarms to catch New Zealand v Bangladesh, did not take notice. Karachi's centrally located National Stadium hosted the game. Entry was free and there were no security barriers. A number of Test heroes, including Misbah-ul-Haq, Shahid Afridi and Danish Kaneria participated. Yet the event felt like the proverbial tree falling in the forest, leaving you wondering if it made a sound.

All the same, there is no shortage of people - players, administrators, analysts, observers and casual fans - offering opinions on Pakistan's domestic game. Imran Khan, one of its most trenchant critics, keeps calling for a radical overhaul, while Javed Miandad, one of its foremost supporters, argues for preserving its basic ethos.

Administrators are either sanguine about its prospects or - like an ex-PCB chairman who recently said there was nothing wrong with it - in denial about its flaws. Journalists lament that it is no longer a nursery for future stars. Fans blame it for the chronic maladies that afflict Pakistan's national side.

First-class cricket in Pakistan does have some unique peculiarities. In addition to regional teams there are outfits representing corporate organisations such as banks, airlines, and energy companies. Few of Pakistan's internationals participate domestically. And there is not one first-class tournament but (in most years) as many as three, arranged in a structure that never sits still.

"In 60 years, no two domestic seasons have been the same," says Abid Ali Kazi, a statistician and Wisden contributor who has compiled an authoritative reference work on Pakistan's home seasons. The number of participating teams, competition formats, criteria for promotion and relegation, and even the number of tournaments, varies yearly. This bewildering complexity is in striking contrast to other countries. Australia, for example, has one first-class, one one-day, and one Twenty20 tournament, all competed in by a fixed number of regional teams in an unchanging configuration.

The leading tournament is the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy, which has traditionally comprised regional teams. Alongside that has been the Patron's Trophy, which typically features corporate teams. Often the top five teams from the two have also competed in a Pentangular. There is also a one-day tournament and, since 2005, a Twenty20 tournament. Apart from the Twenty20 games, which are televised, generate water-cooler talk, and fill stadia, little else gets noticed.

One of the chronic ills of Pakistan's domestic season is believed to be its lack of intensity, which ill-prepares players for the international circuit. Imran blames it on the presence of departmental teams. He has frequently said that teams representing corporate entities are sterile competitors, because they cannot generate excitement or inspire fan following.

Yet these corporate teams, the brainchild of Pakistan's first captain, Abdul Hafeez Kardar, serve a crucial purpose. Kardar realised that Pakistan's cricketers would have a very limited professional base if they relied only on district cricket associations, because these bodies inevitably struggled for financial viability. Rather than take up an impractical crusade against corruption and nepotism in regional cricket bodies, he convinced a number of government and semi-government companies to employ cricketers by developing and fielding teams in first-class cricket in the early 1970s. It may be a contrived formula - imagine Barclays Bank and British Airways playing alongside Sussex and Surrey - but it has been the economic key to sustaining cricket infrastructure in Pakistan.

The PCB chairman, envisions a not-too-distant future when Pakistan will have a single flagship first-class tournament in which 16 teams compete. A strictly enforced system of relegation will add prestige and intensity. This new structure will incorporate both departmental and regional presence

A number of leading players, including Miandad, support this system, further arguing that since Pakistan's domestic game has thrown up a fair share of world beaters, it must be doing something right. Miandad often cites his own example. A proud product of the local system, he more than held his own around the world, and cannot see why the same is not possible for any other hardworking lad with a reasonable amount of talent and luck. Miandad is the archetypal example of what is best about Pakistan's first-class system. He spent his formative years in the thick of it, and developed a close relationship with his employers, Habib Bank, that continued fruitfully until well after his playing days.

If anything, contrasting views on Pakistan's domestic game confirm that the system is ripe for meaningful reform. Nasim Ashraf, the PCB chairman, envisions a not-too-distant future when Pakistan will have a single flagship first-class tournament in which 16 teams compete. A strictly enforced system of relegation will add prestige and intensity. Ahsan Malik, the board's marketing director, explains that this will incorporate both departmental and regional presence, as was the case in this year's Quaid-e-Azam trophy. "We are aiming to develop regional teams partnered by corporate sponsors," he said during a training camp recently. "We are even considering opening team ownership to private investors as a franchise, along the lines of the business model seen in American sports and European football."

These ideas are promising, yet hurdles exist. Convincing national-level corporations to become identified sponsors for one city or region won't be easy. In parallel, an efficient administrative structure must develop to promote and maintain world-standard facilities for domestic cricket in every corner of Pakistan. External circumstances must also be favorable. There might not be a Twenty20 tournament this year, for example, because when President Musharraf declared a state of emergency last November, he also banned the local television sports channel that had successfully bid for domestic cricket rights. Without TV coverage, sponsors aren't interested.

Despite all this, cricket followers continue to hold out hope for a permanent and successful reconfiguration of Pakistan's first-class season. The odds are against it, but sometimes that is just how Pakistan prefers it.

Saad Shafqat is a writer based in Karachi

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Khalid on January 23, 2008, 10:17 GMT

    I think the system need to be made more competetive and we should have one premier league i;e: Quaid e Azam trophy alongwith the regular Patron's trophy like we used to have before and in the Patrons trophy all the departmental teams and the associations should participate out of which only eight teams should be allowed to participate in the premier leauge the Quaid e Azam trophy. We should also introduce an elimination system in the patron's trophy. Teams not performing well in the Patron's trophy shouild relegated to compete in a prequalifying tournament which should not be given the first class status. Apart from these two major tournaments we must have a National ODI and Twenty/20 competetions. These tournaments could be sponsored by the private commercial houses or banks. Apart from the above PTV should launch a sports channel whch should telecast all major sporting events.

  • Noman on January 22, 2008, 11:39 GMT

    I think there's an utmost need to revamp the deomestic structureTry following steps:-

    1. Permanently have 8 teams:- Karachi, North Sindh, South Punjab, Central Punjab, North Punjab, NWFP, Balochistan and Azad Kashmir and Tribal areas.

    2. Improve the condition of the grounds, have some family grass banks.

    3. Build club houses with the Stadia for visiting domestic and international teams

    4. Each team plays home and away, from Tuesday to Friday, Have a one day on saturday and a 20/20 on Sunday.

    5. First-class competition should be league-based while 1-day and 20/20 should have finals. Have another 2 week 20/20 bash if rwequired.


  • Shehzad on January 22, 2008, 9:17 GMT

    Thank you first of all for writing a piece on this topic. We do appreciate it and many people I know who follow Pakistani domestic cricket but never bother to write about it, would I am sure, also appreciate it. I think PCB needs to fix these things fast, maybe they should sit down for a few months and do nothing else, maybe in summer when there is no cricket. Another point to ponder for them is that Pakistan plays much less cricket than other countries and our players still complain of fatigue! I don't understand how this could happen. Other players play so much and make so much money. Do our's want to make money but don't want to work for it? PCB should realize that the more cricket we play, the more money will the board earn!

  • FEROZ on January 22, 2008, 0:52 GMT

    As a Malaysian who has been a Fan of Pakistani Cricket since 1981, when my Hero was Imran Khan, I'd like to offer a couple of suggestions. Management should see more former players in positions of responsibility. Players have experience and instinctively will make decisions for the benefit of the Country, not for themselves or their own interests. The Australian Domestic League is very strong because they only have 6 teams fighting it out, therefore to get in to those teams means you have to very good. Too many teams mean that any player could get into any team without having to maintain very high standards; so reduce the number of teams at the highest level. England has too many teams, but they have relegation/promotion at the end of the season which is a good thing. If you have more than 12 teams then you must split it into 2 Divisions of 6 teams, and have promotion/relegation which undoutedly'll create more interest among spectators first and tv second. Thanks.

  • Nasir on January 20, 2008, 20:04 GMT

    One look at our national team and you understand that there are major problems in Pakistani cricket. Unlike other countries where sports are being promoted, Pakistan has been taking backward steps. Look at squash and hockey. In cricket too, other than the 1992 World Cup we do not have much to show. Its a sad state of affairs and goes hand in hand with the overall affairs on the nation.

  • Nakib on January 20, 2008, 19:30 GMT

    Being a die-hard Pakistan Cricket supporter,I have to say that,Pakistan as a country itself is going through many hardships,the government have bigger things to look at than their cricket structure at the moment.I believe that improvement in Pakistan's Domestic cricket structure totally depend on Pakistan's political situation,and I can only pray and hope that the current political situation in Pakistan ends soon.

  • Normal on January 20, 2008, 14:02 GMT

    I think its time for Pakistan 2 take inputs from ICL,IPL,English county & ofcourse the best & toughest domestic structure i.e, from Australia. Though,the Pakistani ppl r not tht keen in following such events,i wonder how much marketing of such events r 2 b blamed.If afridi is playing a match,ppl wont get dreams 2 know abt his presence unless they r shaken into it,especially the mindset of the Pakistani ppl wld need a lot more stimulation,like,r the tickets free or atleast cheap,how good is this contest?is it on my day-off,is it clashing with the new aamir khan movie?...........there wld b loads of question,just requires some1 2 diligently work with heart & remember tht these r ppl with great passion & not just interest for cricket.

  • ATEEQ on January 20, 2008, 13:47 GMT

    Mr Saad has rightly pointed out the two school of thoughts prevailing in the administration; we can call it Javed Miandad(JM) vs Imran Khan (IK) poicies. Now lets take one by one; JM : Pakistan is a poor country where majority of the population has no acces or cash for the basics. Cricket, unlike football(example Brazil) is a costly affair if played properly. Tape ball cricket played with tennis ball is nor contributing enough either to Pak or world cricket. Hence in order to produce cricketer of any class you need proper infrastructure and playe must be economically well off to be able to fully utilize the infrastructure provided by the PCB. IM: This class belongs to the Oxford return elites of Pakistan who virtually has access to every luxury like Lords of the British Empire who introdcued this game over here. Hence making money for living through cricket is no problem for this class. They emphsize on making cricket more interesting for the masses by dividing it into regional basis

  • Arif on January 20, 2008, 11:02 GMT

    An article on cricinfo by an Indian journalist once highlighted the fact that Pakistan's Under-15 world cup final team produced 7 players that represented Pakistan at national level including current captain Shoaib Malik, Kamran Akmal, Yasir Arafat, Faisal Iqbal etc. on the other hand, only Mohammad Kaif and Rutinder Singh Sodhi could make it from the Indian bunch.

    Therefore, I agree in general terms that the system is not all bad but just needs some fine tuning. Reducing number of teams should definitely be a priority. Karachi and Lahore should be allowed to field only one team that is capable of winning the tournament every year rather than having two mediocre teams. I am sure New South Wales could field NSW Whites and NSW Blues but they don't. Instead, players of the quality of Adam Gilchrist move to a different state to get an opportunity if they feel they deserve it.

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